Remembering Walt Farrell.
Father Walter Lewis Farrell, S.J. died last night at the age of 96 in his seventy-eighth year in the Society of Jesus and his sixty-fifth year as a priest. Walt spent much of his Jesuit life in positions of leadership, including periods of service as a seminary rector, provincial superior, president of the U.S. Jesuit Conference, province treasurer, and as director of a retreat house. Though he was a gifted administrator, Walt was best known both inside and outside the Society as a master of the Spiritual Exercises: he directed countless retreats, wrote and lectured on Ignatian spirituality, and served as a spiritual director to people from many different walks of life.
The context in which I knew Walt Farrell best was different from all of the above: he was a member of the novitiate community in which I spent my first two years in the Society of Jesus. Though Walt lived at the novitiate, he wasn’t part of the formation staff; in his eighties at the time, he still worked full-time as Treasurer of the Detroit Province and commuted daily to an office in the city. Walt’s role in the house was one that is fairly common in Jesuit novitiates, a position without any English title but known in Spanish and Portuguese as padre edificante – that is, a priest sent to live with the novices simply to teach them how to be good Jesuits through his own example.
Walt Farrell was a true padre edificante. He celebrated his early-morning Mass with sincere reverence and a kind of gentle dignity, preaching in a laconic and reflective style that turned each homily into a kind of guided meditation. He lived by the values of frugality and self-discipline, and his daily routine seldom varied – always the same thing for breakfast and lunch, no water at meals ("I get my water from coffee," he quipped), an evening walk for exercise and prayer. He was unfailingly generous in sharing the fruit of his experience and study of the Jesuit tradition, but he never dropped names or sought to draw attention to his own accomplishments. In his own quiet and thoughtful way, Walt Farrell did much to mold the novices that he lived with into the Jesuits that we are today – and that, I think, is the best tribute that one can pay to a padre edificante.
Grateful for his role in our formation as novices, the members of my vow class asked Father Walt Farrell to preach at the Mass at which we professed First Vows. The photo that illustrates this post shows Walt preaching at that Mass; I regret that I don’t remember much of what he said that day, but I am grateful for his presence there as well as for the great gift of his company. Requiescat in pace. AMDG.